Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Roundtrip Distance: 14.8 mile roundtrip – Time out: 6 hours
Degree of Difficulty: 2 – Elevation Gain: 1,364 ft.
Pet Friendly: No
July 3, 2013
I enjoyed the day hike along Grand Ridge because much of it was above tree-line. The National Park Service lists this trail as the highest in the Olympic National Park. The trailhead starts at Deer Park Campground at 5,200 feet and climbs to over 6,500 feet. It is a remarkable trail.
The spectacular road to the trailhead on Blue Mountain was planned by the US Forest Service and constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. A CCC construction camp was located at Deer Park. The Port Angeles Evening News reported on March 21st 1934 that the road, “…is almost entirely cut out of mountain rock in the upper five miles.” And that it’s, “…one of the best forest roads possessed by the United States Forest Service.”
We parked at the lower parking lot in the Deer Park campground. The first mile of trail slopes downhill and is broad and smooth because it’s an abandoned road. This was a highway that was to be continued along Grand Ridge to Obstruction Point; just one of many roads envisioned by the Forest Service in the 1930’s using its Civilian Conservation Corp labor pool.
During the difficult economic times of the 1930’s much of the labor for road construction, trail building, recreation facilities and firefighting in the Olympics was provided by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Government programs such as the CCC were important to young men adrift with no job or prospects. The men sent a big chunk of their pay back to their families, many who barely existed on small Olympic Peninsula farms. In a 1997 interview, Joseph Kirk explained how he joined the CCC; “I lived on a stump ranch in Shelton. And we were more or less in dire straits. So my folks signed me up…We had it rough.” Most boys stayed once they joined. The CCC Camp Elwha had a 91% re-enlistment rate.
It was a beautiful day and I was hiking with the Klahhane Hiking Club again. The Klahhanes are a wonderful group of outdoor enthusiasts. There were three dozen of us on the hike. We traversed a forested ridge that sloped steeply toward the Maiden Creek and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north and Grand Creek valley and the interior of Olympic National Park to the south.
It seemed crazy to think of a highway across Grand Ridge, but the Forest Service justified the idea by saying the CCC could better protect valuable stands of timber from fire. This was prior to the creation of Olympic National Park and the Wilderness Act so logging was still an option. The Port Angeles Evening News on July 19th 1933 concurred, “It will be of inestimable value to the forest service to have the direct cross-country course in time of emergency, such as fire. Equipment and men may be dispatched quickly and the battle against destruction facilitated immeasurably.” It was a pretty basic idea for the US Forest Service and Peninsula timber interests; you can’t log a burnt forest.
Ironically the hike began as we hiked downhill through the edge of a forest that was regenerating after fire. According to the National Park Service, “The second-largest, human-caused fire in park history was the 245-acre Deer Park Fire in 1988, which was caused by a campfire….built during periods of high fire danger when fires were banned.” I’m sure the Deer Park road helped the firefighting efforts just like the Forest Service predicted, but then again without the road, knuckleheads with matches probably wouldn’t have been camping there.
The trail was broad and dry. We hiked through pretty meadows thick with green grass and Avalanche Lilies as we climbed the shoulder of Green Mountain. The forest thinned. Three miles from the trailhead, as we traversed the southern shoulder of Maiden Peak at about 6,000 feet, the trail broke out of the tree line into alpine tundra – grasslands with spectacular views. It reminded me of hiking in Denali National Park in Alaska. The museum curator at Olympic National Park museum told me that sheep herders used the area in the early 1900s. I can see why. What perfect, high-mountain pastures.
Another use for the high open spaces and all that CCC labor was to build a ski area. That’s what happened at Deer Park. In the mid-1930’s the Deer Park ski area was a busy place. The CCC mess hall at Deer Park was used as a ski hut. There was plenty of open terrain and a long rope tow whisked skiers back up the slopes.
We continued to climb along the broad ridge. Below us was Cameron Creek. I hiked through this area of the Park on a family backpacking trip. Deer Park down to Cameron Creek and back up to Grand Ridge makes a wonderful three-day loop hike.
The view across the Gray Wolf valley to the snow covered peaks along Gray Wolf Ridge was spectacular. We dipped down into a saddle called Roaring Winds where we crossed small snow fields. There is a level space for a few tents. Stunted firs provided some shelter, and though it was a pleasant day when we stopped there for a rest, I thought that the site must be aptly named.
At five miles we reached the junction with the trail up from Grand Valley. You could look down to the south directly into Grand Valley. A couple of miles away was blue-green Grand Lake, and a couple of miles further- up Grand Valley was the lake’s headwaters in snowy Grand Pass. Backpacking to Grand Pass is another trip I’d recommend.
We crossed the long ridge that is Elk Mountain. Here we were at over 6,500 feet. Just off the main trail was the 6,773 foot summit of Elk Mountain which was where we ate lunch. We sat in the early summer sunshine and enjoyed the views from what seemed like the top of world.
Another two miles and the trail reached the Obstruction Point Road trailhead and a parking lot. If you have the means to position an automobile here you wouldn’t have to walk back to Deer Park.
Be sure to bring water. There isn’t any on this trail. And say a silent thank you to the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corp. who built the road, campground and trail at Deer Park three-quarters of a century ago.
To reach the Grand Ridge Trailhead at Deer Park from the Holiday Inn Express, Sequim:
- Take highway 101 west for ten miles
- Turn left on to Deer Park Road
- Drive 16 miles up to the Deer Park Campground at the end of the road.
- The trailhead is fifty feet back down the road
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